The others in your life

Sharing news of your diagnosis can be difficult. You may feel uncomfortable talking about personal matters, or unsure how family and friends will react. You might want to protect your loved ones, but sharing the news can bring you closer together.

Sharing your anxiety and fear may also help you feel stronger. If you already communicate well with certain family members or friends, develop this bond. You may find that talking about cancer is not as difficult as you had first thought. Sometimes you may feel that nobody understands what you’re going through. At a time when you need support, try not to shut others out.

Should I tell others?

You will need to decide who you want to tell about the cancer diagnosis. It’s up to you how much detail you give, but hiding your diagnosis probably won’t work. Sooner or later, family and friends will learn that you have cancer either through changes in your appearance or by hearing it from others.

Telling others can also help prevent misunderstandings, put you in control of what information is given out and allow those who care about you to support you.

Telling different people repeatedly about a cancer diagnosis can be emotionally draining. It may help to ask a trusted friend or family member to pass on the information and then provide regular updates via weekly phone calls or emails.

How do I tell others?

Telling others about a cancer diagnosis can be difficult but a little preparation can help:

  • When you feel ready, decide who to tell and what you want to say.
  • Think of answers to possible questions but only answer if you feel comfortable. You don’t have to share every detail.
  • Choose a quiet time and place.
  • Accept that the person you are telling may get upset. You may find yourself comforting them, even though you are the sick one.
  • Call the Helpline if you find the prospect of telling people too overwhelming. You may just need to find the right words.
  • Ask for help – family or friends could tell others if you can’t.

Other people’s reactions

Sometimes you may come up against reactions from family and friends that seem insensitive or uncaring. Some people may avoid or withdraw from you, some may appear too positive or make light of your situation. These reactions may make you feel hurt, angry or frustrated. Try not to take their reactions as a sign that they don’t care. It may be that they need more time to take in your diagnosis before they are ready to face it.

Helping your family adjust

Cancer is difficult for everyone it affects. Your family also needs to adjust to the diagnosis. Family members may deal with their feelings in a different way to you.

Your family may experience similar anxieties and need as much information, support and advice as you. Family members might express their own fear about the diagnosis, at the possibility of losing you, and at their inability to do anything about the disease. They may also worry about how the illness will change their lives.

It might help family members having difficulty dealing with your diagnosis to contact a counsellor. Cancer Council Helpline 13 11 20 can help you find a counsellor or psychologist.

When friends stay away

Cancer can change friendships. Some friends handle it well; others cut off all contact. Friends stay away for different reasons. They may not be able to cope with their feelings or they may not know how to respond to changes in your appearance. Your friends may still care for you, even if they stay away.

If you think that awkwardness rather than fear is keeping a friend from visiting, call them to ease the way. Remember that you can’t always know or understand all the reasons why some people avoid you. You may find that talking about your illness helps everyone cope with it better.

  • Make time to talk. Don’t wait for the ‘right’ time – it may never come.
  • Don’t fall into the trap of thinking, ‘if they really cared they would know what I need’. They are not mind-readers.
  • Be honest about your thoughts and feelings even if it is upsetting.
  • Focus on understanding each other, as this is more important, at least initially, than trying to solve the problem.
  • Really listen to what the other person has to say, putting aside your own thoughts and judgments, to try to understand where they are coming from.
  • Talk openly about what is happening and what you need, and make some specific suggestions. For example, you may like someone to drive you or keep you company at the doctors.

How do I talk to kids about cancer?

When you are diagnosed with cancer, one of your concerns might be telling your children, grandchildren or other young people in your life. Some parents avoid telling their children they have cancer. Children usually sense that something is wrong even if they don’t know what it is. When not told what is going on, children may imagine the worst. They may also find out from someone else, leaving them feeling angry and confused.

Children often benefit from an open and honest approach. With planning, practice and support from family or health professionals, most people are able to talk to kids about cancer.

Consider what you will say and how you will say it before the discussion.

  • Talk to children in language they understand. Younger children need simpler explanations while teenagers and young adults might ask for more details.
  • Encourage your children to tell you what they know about cancer and answer their questions honestly. This gives you the chance to clear up any misunderstandings. Children may also need reassurance that the diagnosis is not their fault.
  • Tell other people close to your children (grandparents, friends and school teachers) about the diagnosis and the plan for talking to your children so that you all say similar things. Trusted friends can also talk to your children about cancer if you feel unable. • Ask them if they want to tell anyone else about the diagnosis, e.g. their teacher.

Helping children cope

Children might have difficulty coping with cancer in the family. Their parent or family member might look different, be in hospital, or confined to bed. And their own daily routines may be upset.

These changes can sometimes be frightening for children, and can affect their behaviour. Young children may become insecure and refuse to leave your side or behave badly to get attention. Older children may retreat or become much closer to the person with cancer. It is natural to wonder if behavioural changes are normal or a result of the cancer. Talk to a health professional if your child or teenager’s behaviour changes significantly. Call Helpline for a free copy of Talking to Kids About Cancer.

  • Tell children how you’re feeling. Honesty and openness is important when talking about cancer.
  • Listen and give children a chance to discuss their feelings.
  • Answer questions simply and honestly. You may like to prepare answers to questions you think they may ask.
  • Talk to their school teacher or school counsellor.
  • Reassure them of your love. Do things together. Read them a story, help with their homework or watch television together. Ask a relative or friend to devote extra time and attention to them.
  • Assure them that cancer is not contagious.
  • Tell them they will be looked after throughout your cancer treatment even if you can’t always do it yourself.

It’s okay to say no

Sometimes you will switch between wanting to talk about things and wanting to avoid difficult thoughts and feelings. It is okay to say no – whether it is discussing your personal concerns or an offer of help that you do not wish to accept. At times when you don’t feel up to taking phone calls or seeing visitors, it can be helpful for your partner or another family member to act as a gatekeeper and handle enquiries or rearrange calls or visits to more suitable times.

Sharing without talking

Your own physical health and emotions could fluctuate during and after your treatment. Sometime it’s hard to let your friends and family know how you’re feeling and they may find it hard to ask.

If you are having trouble talking about how you feel, you can try sharing your feelings without talking by keeping a journal, or blog. Some people keep two journals, one private and one to share with others. You could be creative through making music, drawing or doing crafts.

Use an emotions thermometer to show those close to you how you are feeling each day.

The emotions thermometer

An emotions thermometer is a simple tool that allows you to show how you’re feeling every day. You can make one
yourself and if you have kids, ask them to help. Decide on the feelings you want on the thermometer, for example, stress, fear, anger or sadness. Put it up in a place where everyone can see it, such as the fridge. Attach a pointer, like a magnet that can be moved each day to indicate how you are feeling.

Emotions Thermometer

This information was last reviewed in April 2013

This information has been reviewed by: Dr Lisbeth Lane, Senior Clinical Psychologist, University of Wollongong, Wollongong Hospital, NSW; Kim Hobbs, Social Worker, Gynaecological Oncology, Westmead Hospital, NSW; Dr Megan Best, Palliative Care Physician, Greenwich Hospital, NSW; Deborah Ball, Coordinator of Direct Support Services, Cancer Council SA; Sandy Hutchison, Executive Manager, Cancer Counselling Service, Cancer Council QLD; Jill Adams, RN, Helpline, Cancer Council WA; and Ksenia Savin, Cancer Connect Volunteer and Consumer, QLD.

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